Stevie Parker: ‘Everyone is ultimately scared of oblivion’
What better way to start an interview with an up-and-coming pop star than to sit for two hours in complete darkness, thinking about the end of the world?
According to Stevie Parker, there is no better way. She has invited me to the Barbican for a screening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. The sad, surreal sci-fi drama about a planet on a collision course with the Earth (and a catatonic Kirsten Dunst) is, she says, one of the most accurate on-screen portrayals of a mental health crisis she has ever seen. You can see why the 24-year-old, as someone who has dealt with anxiety and depression, relates to it. In fact, she says, watching it helped to spark her creativity around such difficult issues. Parker’s mum, a counsellor, recommended it to her when she was a teenager, and the singer has watched it at home more times than she can remember. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time, however, was “fucking intense”.
“I think it kind of represents oblivion, doesn’t it?” she says of the rogue planet. “Everyone is ultimately scared of oblivion and the unknown. But I think it’s a giant metaphor for depression as well, because that’s what it feels like: suddenly, you’re faced with this sense of complete distance from yourself.”
Talking to Parker, you get the sense that these are the sorts of existential wranglings that she considers on a regular basis. Her press material describes her as the Kristen Stewart of music, which may sound trite, but encapsulates her quite well – intelligent, introspective, softly spoken, nervous, unintentionally deadpan at times, unconcerned with fame. The most obvious clue to her lack of pretension is visual: like Steve Jobs, Parker wears the same uniform each day – a black or grey jumper, jeans and trainers. “Lack of image could be perceived as a gimmick,” she concedes. “But that’s just me being me. It’s how I’ve dressed since I was six.”
Her look, while rare in the bells-and-whistles world of pop, goes hand in hand with her sound: mournful, fragile and real, meshing the ambient soundscapes of the xx or her heroes, Massive Attack, with an attractive, endearingly fragile vocal à la early Ellie Goulding or Lorde. On her upcoming debut album The Cure – produced by Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, Sia) and featuring Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa on drums – she’s full of candour, as she explores sadness, heartache and moving on from her first serious girlfriend (“It all culminated with me getting ghosted, basically,” she says).
This isn’t the sort of music Parker always thought she would be making. “My dream was to write jangly electric guitar music, join a band and sign to an indie label,” she says. “Then somewhere along the line I just fell in love with pop music and got very much redirected”. Parker grew up in Frome, Somerset, where she “never really partied” as a teen. She began singing in her final year of sixth form, when she entered a school talent contest on a whim with an acoustic cover of Wonderwall.
“It sounds a very X Factor backstory,” she laughs. “I kind of realised: ‘Oh shit, maybe I’ve got something here.’”
At university in Bath she studied for a degree in music, but became disillusioned with the notion of being taught something that came to her intuitively, instead throwing herself into her own projects. Her depression and anxiety was another reason for being apart from the crowd. “I wasn’t really mingling with anyone. I was very isolated and going through a bit of a weird time,” she says. Parker seems a little hesitant to get into the specifics, understandably, so uses the film as an example. “It’s like when Justine’s husband says to her: ‘Maybe in the future, when you’re not having one of your sad days.’ It’s not really sadness, it’s different. It’s not really an emotion, it’s a lack of it.”
Parker found a manager while at university, so decided to drop out in 2012 to try to make a go of things, playing small venues around the south-west. It was that manager who introduced her to Rough Trade’s Jeannette Lee, who would go from a mentor figure to Parker’s new manager (apart from Jarvis Cocker, she’s the only act Lee manages). Parker inked a major label deal in 2014, and – taking things slowly – released her debut EP last year. One of the tracks was a cover of Joe Jackson’s 1979 new-wave single It’s Different For Girls; she worried about whether, as a gay artist covering a male artist’s song, original pronouns intact, it might sound like a coming-out thing, but decided to go for it anyway.
Has Parker felt any untoward expectations on her, as a young, female singer making music that would fit comfortably on the Radio 1 A list? “I’ve never felt any pressure to write or not to write about certain things,” she says. “But sometimes I’ve felt like actually maybe I did write a song trying to please people a little bit more, and actually it didn’t feel authentic enough. I generally do write better if I’m coming from a place of sadness, or ambiguity, or emptiness.”
These are themes that The Cure tackles in a variety of ways. Blue is a stripped-back, arthousey piece of near-EDM about being hung up on her ex, while Without You is drum-propelled, Rolling in the Deep-style pop that swells to a climax as Parker tries to convince herself – and her listeners – that she’s better off alone. Elsewhere, the title track is a delicate, London Grammar-ish lament on needing someone to “save me from myself again”.
“It kind of moves from a place of anxiety into a place of sadness and then back into strength,” Parker says of the record. Somewhat ironically, as her vulnerabilities and formative heartaches get an outing, Parker’s personal life is more settled. She and her girlfriend recently moved into a new house in Bristol, and she is getting more comfortable with performing live. “It kind of doesn’t do much for my anxiety levels, but it does a lot for my soul and my sense of self-worth.” Laughing, she adds: “I do the bare minimum in terms of audience interaction, though – I don’t have the gift of the gab.”
It’s fine, though, because Parker has a few other things besides: a knack for smart, raw pop and – of course – a sweatshirt for every occasion.
The Cure is out on 19 May on Virgin